Eat Drink Man Woman vs. Sense and Sensibility: A Feminist Observation
A good director directs with clarity, a great director inhabits the character and actor portraying them. Regardless of his production size or financial results, Ang Lee specializes in intimacy. Ang Lee has a gift that allows him to access complete vulnerability in every actor he works with. Perhaps it is because he collaborates with writers who create beautifully raw moments throughout his films. Being born in Taiwan, Lee proudly represents the Taiwanese culture and actively represents the people, which offers great opportunities for Asian actors. Ang Lee also strongly values the woman. “I did a women’s movie, and I’m not a woman. I did a gay movie, and I’m not gay. I learned as I went along.” Ang Lee has never feared a narrative. As a woman, it is exciting to see a straight male director caring and finding the vast opportunities to create diverse and detailed female-centered roles and films. Eat Drink Man Woman and Sense and Sensibility oppose each other on every aspect, yet their similarities are fascinating.
Eat Drink Man Woman tells the story of three sisters who live with their widowed father in contemporary 1990s Taiwan. The oldest daughter is a practicing Christian, which at times, is treated as a joke. While the film does not take a specific position of religion, the structure of the film parallels traditional Confucian philosophy. Authors Arp, Barkman and McRae write, “each character struggles with love and family, as well as the delicate balance between satisfying emotional needs and maintaining interpersonal harmony.”
Each woman works in a profession that represents the diversity of the 90s but also Taiwan. Jia-Jen is a traditional mathematics professor at a local school, Jia-Chien works in an office for a large airline company and their youngest sister, Jia-Ning, is a cashier at an American fast-food restaurant. Kristen Weaver discusses the break-down of Taiwanese women in the workplace’s wages and the discrimination and challenges they faced. Similar to America and many countries, she writes, “the gender gap is not only large but also persistent despite the rapid economic growth and a big surge in labor demand in Taiwan over this period.” Lee also notes men received 56.5 percent higher wages than women in 1989. It is amazing how even with the social limitation, Ang Lee still felt it was important to give Jia-Chien a corporate career.
While women during the Regency Era lived less corporate lives, they still aimed for individual success. Sense and Sensibility follows three sisters and their recently widowed mother who have been removed from their home in the South of England during the 19th century. Some may look at the systematic expectation of marriage conformist, Jane Austin and Ang Lee expand the stereotypical courtship into self-discovery.
The film begins with Mr. Dashwood on his deathbed informing his son that the manor legally belongs to him because the property is transferred from father to son, not father to daughter. Mr. Dashwood then says he does not have enough money to give the sisters, Elinor, Marianne and Margaret, to live on and none for their dowries. Anne-Marie Scholz writes in her thesis that the idea of courting the Dashwood daughters seems outdated, what is important is the reasoning behind it. The structure of their lives as women during the nineteenth-century places them in a state of panic when looking for a potential marriage partner. They are not privileged enough to solely focus on basic attraction. This best explains the financial importance of Marianne’s interest with the vivacious John Willoughby or Elinor’s shy love for Edward Ferrars.
These films discuss the generics of marriage in two completely different worlds. However, Ang Lee successfully alters the standards to personalize the search and eventual achievement of marriage and the discovery of being ok without it.
Firstborns are Problem-Solvers
The dynamic between both groups of sisters tells a lot about them individually and collectively. Bother older siblings, Jia-Jen and Elinor, feel a need to find some control or at least stability. Out of the Dashwood sisters, Elinor is not the first we are introduced to. However, when she asks Marianne to change the piece she is playing the piano because their mother is mourning their father’s recent death, it is most telling of her character. She cares deeply about her mother and wants to make sure her sisters do not suffer as a result of her mother’s current state. It is Elinor who informs the staff that they will not be needed and she is leading the search for a new home while balancing the finances.
Jia-Jen, similar to Elinor, is respectful and reserved. She does not want to point out or draw attention to problems. At Sunday dinner, Jia-Chien is bothered by an over-smoked ingredient. However, Jian-Jen reminds her that their father may have made a mistake instead of assuming he is losing his memory.
Femininity in Emotion
If the older sisters are repressed, then the middle-born are emotional. Marianne is somewhat a hopeless romantic. She has this idea of love in her head which is seen when she is sitting down with her mother and says how Edward is too boring for Elinor. Her mother’s response is that just because Edward appears boring and insufficient to Marianne, it doesn’t mean he is not “good” enough for Elinor. The idea of independence and living your own life is a theme Ang Lee likes to experiment with his female characters. While Marianne falls in “love” for Colonel Brandon and then replaces him for John Willoughby and then eventually marries Colonel Brandon, Jia-Chien’s journey is less of a fairytale. She engages in casual sex with her ex-boyfriend while preparing to move out of her father’s traditional house. We see no emotional connection with her ex besides her cooking for him and constantly going back to see him after some bad news.
Curiosity in the Youngest
Margaret Dashwood and Jia-Ning bring a youthful touch to these films but do not take away from the dramatic storylines of their siblings. Margaret is interesting because she does not get as much screen time as her other sisters yet we understand her. Being the youngest, her absence represents the confusion of each situation. While parallels Jia-Ning’s inability to talk about their deceased mother because she was too young. It isn’t until Edward helps her break out of her shyness that we get to understand her naive behavior. However, Jia-Ning leads her own narrative in Eat Drink Man Woman. Surprisingly, she acts as the middleman between her sisters when they argue after dinner about their futures and the concern for their father. She forms a romantic relationship with her friend’s ex-boyfriend, becomes pregnant and they move in together. Her actions appear unprepared and a juvenile mistake that would less likely occur with her older sisters.
Ang Lee’s Personal Connection
While these two films take place in opposing times, the narratives and character developments have similarities. After losing a parent, each family’s lives are changed. While we never know what happened before the film, we can only assume the dynamics were changed. Ang Lee specializes in creating distinct family conversations with detailed people. The Dashwood and Chu sisters both show strong females taking control and protecting their families. We see siblings who achieve goals, some that were planned and others that were discovered along the way. Each sister shows restraint and a willingness to let go. Sense and Sensibility and Eat Drink Man Woman are perfect examples of Ang Lee’s range with the female character. Like he himself said, being a male creating a film about women is something that needs to be properly cared for. Male directors cannot approach a female story like they are the female characters. They must be willing to learn. Ang Lee finds a way to connect his interest of family with strong female leads.
Arp, R. Barkman, A., & McRae, J. (2013). The Philosophy of Ang Lee (1st Ed.) Lexington: University Press of Kentucky.
Lee, A. (Director). (1994). Eat Drink Man Woman
Lee, A. (Director). (1995). Sense and Sensibility
Mendelson, S. (2016). Why Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk was a box office fumble. Forbes.com
Scholz, Anne-Marie. (2009). Thelma and Louise and Sense and Sensibility: New Approaches to Changing Dichotomies in Women’s History Through Literature and Film.
Weaver, K. (2015) Gender Inequality as Family Drama in Ang Lee’s Eat Drink Man Woman. Bryn Mawr College.
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